Northumbrian scholar receives award for examining religious influence on modern conservation


A Northumbria University academic has received a prestigious award to examine the role of the Anglican community in shaping the development of modern conservation and natural history.

Professor Brycchan Carey has been awarded a British Academy Wolfson Professorship worth £162,410 to conduct three years of research starting this September for his next major project entitled The Parish Revolution: Parochial Origins of Global Conservationism.

Professor Carey’s research will attempt to show how the Anglican Church played a central role in the development of the science of natural history, the genre of natural literature and the origins of modern conservation between 1660 and 1859.

It covers three centuries of natural history writings by clergymen and their parishioners across the British Empire, including figures such as the physician and natural historian William Turner of Morpeth and the Northumbrian Henry Baker Tristram, the canon of Durham Cathedral who read Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace’s papers on evolution to the Linnean Society in 1858 and who wrote The Natural History of the Bible. Research will also examine the contribution of lay people, women and the colonized, and clergy.

Through his research, Professor Carey will show that clerical naturalists made a significant contribution to the scientific knowledge that made possible the theories of ecology and evolution of the 19th and 20th centuries and popularized natural history as an activity and literary genre. Research will also show that by placing local communities at the center of a global movement, these clerical naturalists also profoundly influenced the character of the future conservation movement.

Professor Carey said: “In the 200 years to the mid-19th century much scientific research was done by clergy, but few people asked why. I intend to examine who these spiritual naturalists were, how they worked, how they interacted with one another, and how they communicated with other naturalists in the broader scientific community.

“Through my research, I want to remind people that religion and science have historically worked very closely and effectively together. Clerics and their close associates made enormous contributions to natural history during the Age of Enlightenment, which helped lay the foundation for modern ideas of evolution, ecology, and conservation.

“It is fantastic to have been selected for a British Academy Wolfson Professorship which will allow me to explore these issues in more depth. Hopefully it will lead to more conversations in parishes and local communities about how important churches and local societies are to the future of conservation and the environment.”

Professor Carey is one of five academics to be awarded a British Academy Wolfson Professorship, which enables some of the UK’s finest SHAPE (Social Sciences, Humanities and the Arts for People and the Economy) fellows to carry out important research. First launched in 2009, the awards are a joint initiative of the British Academy and the Wolfson Foundation, providing grants to support and encourage excellence in education, science and medicine, cultural heritage, humanities and arts, and health and disability.

Paul Ramsbottom, Chief Executive of the Wolfson Foundation said: “The importance of research in the humanities and social sciences is vital to society – now more than ever. We are therefore delighted to continue our partnership with the British Academy to support a further cohort of Wolfson Research Professorships: a benchmark of excellence in both original scholarship and its elegant communication.”

Hetan Shah, British Academy Chief Executive said: “We are delighted to announce another outstanding cohort of British Academy/Wolfson Research Professors. Made possible through the generous support of the Wolfson Foundation, the professorships will enable five exceptional scholars to conduct innovative and ambitious research on topics such as participatory approaches to museum collections and the ecclesiastical origins of global conservation. We wish our new British Academy/Wolfson professors every success and look forward to the results of their research and public engagement.”

Northumbria is known for its outstanding research in the humanities. English literature is in 21st placeSt in the UK for research achievement in the Research Excellence Framework (REF2021), while history ranks 26th Place. Almost all of Northumbria’s research in these disciplines is classified as world-leading or internationally acclaimed.


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